[-empyre-] Resilient Latin America: Reconnecting Urban Policy and the Collective's Imagination
cruzroe at earthlink.net
Wed Mar 28 10:05:34 EST 2012
Dear Ana, Dear All,
-I apologize for not having been able to participate in the last days. I was inspired by a series of postings during last week that brought up the topic of Latin America and I wanted to follow up, even as I arrive late, to contribute with a few reflections about this. So, I have stitiched the following fragments I was elaborating in the last days, as I was traveling – working in Sao Paulo, Brazil:
-Last Summer I attended a conference in Ramallah called ‘Designing Civic Encounter’ organized by Ursula Biemann and Shuruq Harb. As we drove around the outskirts of the city I was surprised to see newly built Palestinian housing developments sprinkled forcefully on the gentle hills, imitating, in fact, literally reproducing the worst of Israeli settlements: beige enclaves in the shape of gated communities, equipped with all the suburban cliches.
-How ironic, I thought, here I am in a context where I naively expected to find alternative approaches to affordable housing, that in some way or another would resonate a community’s search for cultural affirmation and enmancipation.
-This image left me with the thought –once again- that the ultimate shape of our cities is and will always be determined by the visionless environments defined by the bottom-line urbanism of the developer’s spreadsheet and the conservative politics and economics of a hyper-individualistic ownership society.
-But, most essentially, this sad sight left me thinking that a community will not be free until it is able to creatively resolve its own housing needs, its own modes of socio-economic sustainability, its own conceptions of public space and infrastructure: its own civic culture. Can a more critical sense of sovereineity be shaped not at the scale of nation states, but at the scale of neighborhoods in the way a community constructs a new political will towards the re-thinking of the city today? Can Civic Encounter be ‘designed,’ choreographed, enabled?
-Where, then? Across the hemispheres can we find the traces of such possibility? While the attention of the world -during the last years of glamorous economy- had been focused on enclaves of abundance from Dubai to Shanghai, no major ideas were advanced in those cities to transform existing paradigms of housing, infrastructure and density and resolve the major problems of urbanization today which are grounded in the inability of institutions of urban development to engage informality, socio-economic inequity and lack of affordable housing and infrastructure.
-The polished architectural images emerging from those environments of hyper-development only catapulted an idea of the global city as a site of consumption and display. It was in fact many marginal neighborhoods and communities across the world during that period that remained sites of production, of new socio-economic and cultural relations.
-I would argue that it was not the Arab Emirates or China, but Latin America that became the epicenter of progressive urban transformations in our time, producing a new political attitude in the re-thinking of the city. I cannot think of any other continental region in the world where we can find a collective effort led by municipal and federal governments seeking a new brand of progressive governance to produce an urbanism of inclusion.
-Challenging entrenched neo-liberal urban logics of development founded on top down privatization, homogeneity and exclusion, visionary mayors in cities such as Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Bogota and Medellin began to enable new institutional protocols by producing new interfaces with publics – a new politics of participation- as well as unorthodox cross-institutional collaborations, rethinking the very meaning of infrastructure, housing and density and mediating top down development and bottom up social organization.
-In other words, the most progressive re-thinking of the city and most essentially, the most progressive urban actions on the ground, re-organizating policy and resources took place in the offices of mayors like Sergio Fajardo, Antanas Mockus and Jamie Lerner in the last decades, who sought to ‘occupy’ their own municipalities, instead of retreating in political cliches, to strategize a course of action, which is the construction of the political itself, seeking to reconnect public policy, social justice and civic imagination.
-Different to the other un-even epicentres of development in the world that in the last years relied on conventional planning approaches ‘from above,’ sponsoring stand-alone experimental architectural gestures supported by large capital and corporate branding, many of these Latin American Cities were experimenting, instead, by reconfiguring socio-economic relations first, uncovering the potential of informal systems and social networks to rethink urbanization, negotiating formal and informal economies and large and small scales of development. Much of this experimentation began a few years ago with unorthodox public policies and economics, which have become mythical by now.
-These experiments ranged, for example, from the decision by the municipality of Porto Alegre in Brazil to enact ‘participatory budgets,’ enabling communities to decide the distribution of municipal budgets. The success of the Participatory Budgets policy in Porto Alegre depended on the formation of a civic culture, where the dissemination of information across community activists would enable a citizen-led political will that intensified public participation in the distribution of economic resources at the scale of communities.
-To former Curitiba’s former mayor, Jamie Lerner who famously rallied the creative intelligentsia of his city across diverse sectors to re-think ways to produce a ‘common sense urbanization,’ made of an economy of retrofit and adaptation as opposed to the expensive new and the iconic, as well as engaging elementary schools in the city to lead a pedagogical project towards environmental sustainability, which would be guided by children putting pressure on their parents to become accountable for recycling.
-To Brazilian president Ignacio de Lula’s economic policy declaring the urgency to support the many favelas in Rio and Sao Paulo as a vital part of his urban development agenda, not by erasure but by a sort of urban acupuncture, beginning a new conversation about the urgency to re-think infrastructure and housing, from the perspective of informality.
-To Bogota’s former Mayor Antanas Mockus’s further mobilization of a civic-culture founded on a massive urban pedagogical project that paved the way to one of the most successful public transportation systems in the world, Colombia’s Trans-milenio project. Mockus led, in fact, one of the most comprehensive public policies in Latin America to promote a civic imagination, by enacting idiosyncratic public legislature inclusive of social activism, art and culture as frameworks of a civil society. A fundamental reorganization of social systems occurred here that capitalized on the creative intelligence of communities and activists, mobilizing mutual support and volunteerism in the shape of citizen-led collaborations. This massive mobilization of the citizenry allowed the most intangible of factors in the shaping of the next urban revolution to enter the collective imaginary: That communities themselves can, in fact, be participants in the shaping of the city of the future and that the identity of this city is based not on the dominance of private development alone and its exorbitant budgets to sponsor the image of progress, but it can also emerge from the value of social capital and incremental layering of urban development, enabling a more inclusive idea of ownership.
-And finally to former Mayor Sergio Fajardo’s decision to transform his violence-ridden city by building an infrastructure of public library-parks in the marginal sectors of Medellin, committing to education and culture as the devices to re-think public space and re-direct the sites where infrastructural intervention would occur in his city, not where the ‘votes’ are but where the necessities exist; and moving towards reconciling the conflicts between large territorial vision-plans and scale of neighbourhoods, connecting the abstraction of top-down planning logics with the specificity of every day practices within communities.
-Sergio Fajardo enabled this level of specificity when designing a policy and a planning framework with Alejandro Echeverri that would redefine the conventional idea of public space at the scale of community and of urbanism at the scale of the social and the ecological. His famous Library-Parks in Medellin opened the critique that our conception of public space, and public art for that matter, is too abstract and neutral: the naïve idea that if we simply design a nice looking plaza we would magically assure socialization. Instead, he proposed levels of specificity by injecting tactical programming and inclusive modes of management into open space. Each park or public space in this city would be plugged with pedagogical support systems hybridizing social space with knowledge. This was a powerful message, in my mind, that moved the discussion from the neutrality of public infrastructure to the specificity of urban rights: the radical democratization of space by enabling access and concrete civic rights to diverse publics and communities.
-There is no space here to elaborate further on the specificity of these projects –even though arriving to such specificity is what we urgently need. But just wanted to share that an essential part of my research-based practice has been in fact the retroactive mapping and visualization of such processes emerging from the Global South, translating, not their images, but their operative procedures so that those urban operations can enable public policy and activism in the United States, arguing that it is the global South who will lead in issues of socio-economic sustainability.
-So, even though much has been written about these important realized projects in Latin America, there is still a lot of missing information. Most of the descriptions behind these projects focus on the achievements themselves, as final products, but very seldom, if not at all, we can find specific narrations that convey the complex processes behind many of the transactions, exchanges, negotiations that took place across institutions and communities, linking bottom-up social activism with top down planning, integrating the agencies that had been divided, while decentralizing the economic resources, a sort of committed search to democratize urban development.
-These projects and histories have been hugely inspirational to my practice as an architect working at the border between Latin America and the United States. Their legacy as models of possibility needs to be amplified at this moment: An investment in urban pedagogy -the reciprocal transfer of knowledge across governments and publics (the interface between specialized knowledge of institutions and the ethical knowledge of communities) and the linking of urban policy and the public imagination (social justice as the basis for an inclusive urbanization).
-I believe there is an urgent need to radicalize these histories, importing into our inter-disciplinary debate, at this moment, the lineages and interconnections across this temporal evolution of a social and political urban consciousness in Latin America that has began to shape new institutions. During these moments of apathy we –from the left- cannot ‘throw the baby with the bathwater.’ We must sift through these histories to advance them to other scales of operation.
-In fact, the translation of these processes into new urban paradigms that can be replicated at other scales and even with different socio-political actors is an essential point of departure for my work. The conceptual legacy of these projects and the sense of possibility they engender to produce a different approach to a more democratic form of urban development, away from the selfish recipes of urbanization that have permeated the world in the last two decades, have inspired the transformation of my practice in the last years, as I have been researching the impact of the Latin American immigrants in the transformation of many American (US) neighbourhoods, using the US-Mexico border as a laboratory to rethink affordable housing and infrastructure.
-Seeking expanded models of art and architecture practice and a new role for the humanities in shaping inclusive public policy and economy is the primary effort we need to engage today. In this context, it is very telling that many of these progressive mayors in Latin America I have discussed briefly have, in fact, not come from ‘professional politics’ but have migrated into politics from the arts and humanities, such as Mockus and Fajardo, for example, a philosopher and mathematician respectively, and both university professors and Lerner an architect. During my interviews with them, when asked about their move from pedagogy into politics they responded that their incursion into the political arena sprang from a necessity to engage a new brand of progressive politics, enabling the transformations of institutions through actions and not just words of hope. That to engage the political is not to be a ‘politician’ but to enact a course of action, and that we, artists, are the ones who must lead this reconnection of desire to reality.
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